Shadow of Rome

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Shadow of Rome (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a hybrid game – it contains equal parts stealth and hack and slash action, both taking place in the third person perspective. Developed by Capcom exclusively for the PS2, it was well reviewed but it did not sell very well and it’s sequel was canceled and turned into Dead Rising. I’m always fascinated with these hidden gems that will likely never be re-released on more modern platforms – there is just a sense of discovery playing something that most people didn’t and that’s actually good while trying to see if you can figure out why it failed commercially. Or maybe that’s just me.

Set in an alternate timeline based around the murder of Julius Caesar, Shadow of Rome takes place from the perspective of two protagonists – Agrippa who is a roman soldier turned gladiator, and Octavanius – Caesar’s nephew. Agrippa does the action heavy hack and slash portions of the game, while Octavanius’ chapters are more about stealth. During my brief time with the game, Agrippa was the main character I played as and therefore most of what I’ll be basing this post on. The game begins with a fairly long cinematic laying out the characters and ending with Caesar’s murder. The intro started with a scene pulled directly from Gladiator starring Russel Crowe (barbarian hordes taking on the roman legion) – which I think is hilarious. The development team clearly used this movie as a baseline and they don’t even try to hide it. This game has a TON of cinematics – every small section of gameplay seemed bookended by them. They look good, especially for 2005, and I bet Capcom spent a fortune on them.

Gameplay has you locking onto targets with R1 and then using various attacks. You can pick up various weapons in the environments and they act differently depending on their type. Weapons degrade as you use them and eventually break, forcing you to switch it up (something they kept for Dead Rising). When not locked on, I found myself sometimes swinging with my back turned to the enemy. I’m not sure if this was due to camera controls being too touchy (or not touchy enough) or being locked into swing animations, but it was my only complaint about the combat. Occasionally, you’ll kill an enemy and a phrase will pop onto the screen – I ran into about a dozen in my time with the game and they were always different. Here is an example:

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While funny, they do feel a bit out of place with the rest of the game having a fairly serious tone. Despite this, I like them and it makes the game have a little more personality than it normally would.

Sound is fantastic throughout – music is orchestral and epic and sound effects have weight and always feel fitting to the action they are tied to. Usually games of this era have compressed music but I didn’t detect any compression artifacts at all – the soundtrack really is something. Voice work was fair to good, with nothing in particular standing out as great or terrible.

Visually, Shadow of Rome may be one of the best looking PS2 games I’ve ever played. Textures were far more complex than I would expect from the time period and hardware, and character models and environments were very detailed. I really can’t get over how great this game looked – it’s clearly not a modern title but it holds up very well.

Overall, I had a good time with Shadow of Rome. I didn’t get an opportunity to try much of the stealth sections, which may have changed my opinion, but as it stands this is a fun game that’s visually stunning with a fantastic soundtrack – what’s not to love?

Verdict: Play again!

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Shenmue

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Where to begin? Shenmue (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is widely regarded as the swan song of Sega console exclusives – the last great Sega game released only for Sega hardware. To this day, it is attributed with creating several innovations that are now standard in the industry such as open world city environments and quick time events.  Created by Sega’s AM2 and Yu Suzuki, creators of such classics as Hang-On, Out Run, Space Harrier, After Burner, and too many more to list it was clear Sega put their best team on this project. Because of the pedigree of the development team and the ambition of the project – and make no mistake, Shenmue is ambitious if nothing else – the levels of anticipation for this game were insane. On release, Shenmue received generally favorable reviews – sure there were some issues, but critics agreed: if you had a Dreamcast, you needed to own this game. Despite all of this, Shenmue did not sell well and its sequel was never even released in the US on the Dreamcast – it was only officially released in Japan and Europe. To this day, it is adored by Sega diehards and I dare anyone reading this to find an article listing the best Dreamcast games that doesn’t have Shenmue on it.

All that said, my anticipation for this was high. I grew up as a Sega kid, but never owned a Dreamcast. I actually thought about not writing quick impressions of it, instead I was going to play through it entirely and write a proper review, but after spending some time with it I felt that this would be a good fit.

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Shenmue is an adventure game – it opens with you witnessing your father’s death at the hands of a mysterious man. The goal of the game is simple: to find your father’s killer and get revenge. During gameplay, you can interact with most things in the environment – from lamps on desks to drawers in a dresser. I was honestly a bit surprised by the amount of interactivity, as most modern games don’t allow the freedom of interaction that Shenmue does. The presentation of the story and world is very cinematic – it honestly feels very much like you’re playing a movie. I know from other impressions online that there is a combat system, but in my time with the game I didn’t encounter any of it. Throughout my time with the game, I was able to wander the local city and interact with fellow citizens and various items in the world. The world feels fairly alive, and people go about their business as if they really exist. The only downfall here is that the whole city is available, but you need to load in areas of it as you traverse. I can see this adding up to a lot of time loading if you play all the way through.

Visuals are a strong point for Shenmue and it’s one of the best looking Dreamcast games I’ve seen – second only to maybe Soul Caliber. Animations are fairly good for the time with facial animations in particular looking very sharp. I will admit that some faces are more detailed than others, with main characters having the best looking of the bunch. This is most likely because of a budget and time restriction as the game was very delayed and extremely over budget at its release. The developers attempted to do a kind of motion blur during some action sequences and it looks – well, bad. I appreciate what they were trying to do, but I feel that it would have been better if they left it out.

Sound is a mixed bag here. Music is excellent – I can see myself listening to the soundtrack sometime in the future. It fits the atmosphere of the game perfectly, and I don’t think they could have done a better job. Unfortunately, some other parts of the game do not sound as great. Sound effects have a compressed sound to them, which is very distracting. Voice work is also a let down, with some frankly terrible voice acting combined with strange compression artifacts. I also noticed that in one of the earlier scenes, the lines of dialog for the main character sounded like they were recorded on two different recording setups – very disappointing to say the least.

Overall, I didn’t play enough of Shenmue to get a real complete feel for the game – it seems like this is a slow burn and will take at least five or six hours to get into it. I’m very impressed with how many technical tricks AM2 was able to pull to get this looking as good as it does. While there are some issues with the game, I think I’ll be diving deeper into it in the future.

Verdict: Play again. I need to spend more than an hour or two with this one to really come up with a final verdict.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Gladius

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Gladius (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a game from one of my favorite inconsistent developers – the late, sometimes great, Lucas Arts. I say inconsistent, because titles developed and published by them are rarely great, and usually mediocre to terrible. Despite this, they occasionally released a game that is utterly fantastic – they released some of my favorite games of all time. Thankfully, Gladius seems to be on the good end of the spectrum and I’d consider it a hidden gem of the PS2 library.

The game has a fairly deep story – the world was almost destroyed by an ancient evil who was slain last minute in a large battle by a sacrificial warrior. Years later, it is mostly forgotten, and the world entertains itself with gladiatorial games. You play as a child to a king who is attempting to build a gladiator academy to bring honor and glory to yourself and your kingdom. While this is all pretty cliche, the production values in the cut scenes is quite impressive, and I get the feeling the story is going to take some turns and not end up being completely by the book.

Gladius is a strategy RPG, and all combat is turn based. They do spice this up by making the effectiveness of your attacks tied to a meter similar to a swing power gauge in a golf game – hit the sweet spot and you’ll get a critical hit, miss and you’ll do less damage. I think it’s a neat mechanic that makes you more involved in the actual combat, something most strategy RPGs are missing. During combat, you give move or attack orders to the members of your team – some contests require different types of participants so your party will be forced to be switched around frequently. In between battles, you can purchase equipment to alter the stats of your gladiators using your winnings. You can also apply stat upgrades when your gladiators level up – I know this is fairly standard for the genre, but I was surprised at how deep it appears to be. There are several upgrade paths that lock your character out of others, adding to the replayability.

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Visually, the game is unimpressive – the character models and environments are no where near the best on the system, but they are serviceable. I did not notice any frame rate drops, and to its credit the game’s menu system was well laid out, legible, and easy to use.

Sound was acceptable, the main theme was quite good and it was stuck in my head for the rest of the day – in a good way. The rest of the soundtrack was fairly forgettable, but I can forgive it as nothing was grating. Sound effects and voice acting were very good – above average for the time period.

Verdict: Play again! This was a great experience and I ended up playing longer than expected. I would recommend this to fans of the genre or anyone looking for a cheap, accessible strategy RPG on the PS2.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Mega Man Battle Network 3 (White)

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The Mega Man Battle Network series is one that I had honestly never heard of until a few years ago – originally released for the Game Boy Advance, and later the Nintendo DS, the games were never on my radar as I had taken a very long hiatus from portable gaming. I luckily got a copy of Mega Man Battle Network 3 (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) in a GBA lot at a rummage sale, but never got around to actually trying it out.

The game starts with you at a field trip for your school to a network security company. There is a lot of text in this game, and almost all of it is jargon – my guess is the designers assumed the player had experience with the previous title and would feel right at home. I didn’t and was a little overwhelmed. From what I was able to glean from my friends and teacher, most people in this future society lead dual lives – one in the real world, and one in the net. You have a PDA (this was before the ubiquity of smart phones) which has a digital assistant who becomes your avatar when you ‘jack in’ to the net. In the net you can randomly encounter viruses and you need to fight to eliminate them in semi-real time battles.  As the player, your assistant/avatar is none other than Mega Man himself. During battles, you select a number of chips to send out with Mega Man – these include attacks and special items like heals or buffs. You can only send him out with chips that are of the same type. On the grid, you move Mega Man up and down and can attack with the mega buster using the B button (which does little damage)  – but you can use a chip action with the A button. Once you use a chip, it’s gone for this round. You can send out more chips but have to wait for a meter to fill up before you can open the menu to select them. This all sounds fairly complex, but in practice it was intuitive with the chips sort of representing cards in a hand. If I have any complaints about the game it’s that knowing what the game wants you to do next is not very clear, and navigating the net was – well, not intuitive to say the least.

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Graphics and sound are something I normally break out into two sections, but for this I don’t think it’s necessary. Graphics are quite nice for a GBA title and run at a solid frame rate. Sound was pretty good for a title on the GBA, with music fitting the tone and sound effects matching well with the graphics they represent. Not the best looking or sounding game on the system, but above average.

I feel I need to address the elephant in the room. The game really feels like it’s stealing from Pokemon, but any resemblance is really at the surface level – this is a card battling game wrapped in anime/jrpg tropes with a strange amount of mid 90s cyber punk terminology. It’s an odd combination, but I can’t deny that it does work on some level. It also does  seem to be trying desperately to get a slice of the Pokemon audience – and I’m not sure how successful it was at that.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. While this is well made, and I can see the appeal, it didn’t click with me at all. I can see an alternate universe where this released when I was 10 or 11, and I would be obsessed with it.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb